Magical orchestral Proms moments from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Proms 38 and 39 – Audience Choice, Ligeti, Bartók, Beethoven: Anna-Lena Elbert (soprano), Sir András Schiff (piano), Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2023. (AK)

Audience Choice at Prom 38 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Excitement and high-quality musical performances were in abundance at these two Prom concerts which showed conductor Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra as energetic, highly skilled, and fully committed musicians. However, there was a significant difference between the two projects both in aspiration and implementation.

Prom 38 evidently aimed to discreetly educate and to bring music to wider audiences. For sure Fischer and his forces are unusually imaginative innovators as well as highly gifted communicators. However, the concept and its realisation were slightly out of sync.

Titled as an Audience Choice concert, the plan was arguably over ambitious for the vast size of the venue and for the restricted time of one hour fifteen minutes (which, in the event, was extended by five minutes). The format has been tested several times in Hungary but in smaller halls and for events of at least two hours (or longer) duration.

For this London outing, Fischer gave a choice of altogether two-hundred and seventy-five compositions to choose from, all listed in the programme notes. This extensive offer is admirably educational but it was somewhat overwhelming.

Voting for an overture out of a choice of three (narrowed down from nineteen on the original offer) was done online the day before; it was open to all regardless of whether they were attending the concert. I am pleased to report that the winning piece was Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture (for which I too voted).

Then, during the concert, the audience was given the opportunity to choose individual movements from the listed 256 (yes, two hundred and fifty-six!) diverse movements to create a four-movement symphony and an encore.

In theory, Maestro Fischer pulled three audience seat numbers from the big belly of BFO tuba player József Bazsinka’s instrument for each movement of the four-movement symphony. The four times three lucky winners announced their choices via the Royal Albert Hall’s microphone system, then the audience whittled down the four times three choices to four individual movements to create the symphony.

In practice, the Albert Hall surely proved too large for random picking of seats and immediate miked announcements. Some pre-arranged technical assistance seemed to be on hand, which was understandable and wise. On the other hand, the random choice of three audience members for the encore was wholly transparent and great fun. Maestro Fischer threw a ball into the arena; the ball was passed around by the Prommers to establish three winners with their individual choices.

The final choice in each category was determined by the vocalisation of the whole audience. This too was fully transparent, fully audible and very exciting.

The strict time limit of one hour 15 minutes forced Fischer to negotiate with the audience to swap long movements to shorter ones. The random choices meant that some of the pieces have never been played by the orchestra or by some of their members. Fischer is relaxed about this aspect: he explained in the programme notes that he was happy for his orchestra to sight-read in front of an audience, thus giving the audience an insight into working process. However, the audience was not informed about the players’ familiarity with the pieces, and working process was not in evidence. Ironically, what I enjoyed most was a movement which – according to insiders – the orchestra has not played for a long time.

After the opening Glinka overture – which received a virtuoso presentation – the chosen and negotiated programme consisted of :

First movement from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony,
Second movement from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony,
Third movement from Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony,
Fourth movement from Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony
Encore: Brahms Hungarian Dance No.5.

Between the movements, orchestra violinist and librarian Tibor Gátay collected the freshly chosen music from backstage and then distributed it.

However, there was no gap in music making during the distribution. On the contrary! We were treated to diverse chamber music numbers which included Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, klezmer music, Hungarian folk music, a Monteverdi madrigal (sang by a section of the orchestra) and even some jazz improvisation.

Throughout the whole event the excitement was palpable in the Hall. The standard of musical delivery varied, with some superb chamber music by unknown players – the programme notes did not list any of the orchestra players – although with a less successful Monteverdi madrigal.

In the Tchaikovsky movement the timpani player produced highly musical and rock-solid playing and I loved the Beethoven Pastoral movement with the wind soloists providing utmost beauty.

Did the format of this Audience Choice event serve the cause of quality music making? My guest thoroughly enjoyed himself but the jury is still out.

Prom 39 delivered a concert with all-round perfection and utmost beauty.

Iván Fischer conducts soprano Anna-Lena Elbert and the BFO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Ligeti – Mysteries of the Macabre
Bartók – Piano Concerto No.3
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, Eroica

The humour and brilliance of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre was fully matched by the performers. This three-part aria, about ten minutes long, is an excerpt from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre and had a much better outing then what I remember from the English National Opera’s production of the full opera many decades ago. The absurdity of the aria includes the casting – with the coloratura soprano soloist representing the Chief of Police – the juggled-up nonsense text, musical and physical acrobatics, and bizarre instrumental additions such as large rattling sheets of papers.

Soprano Anna-Lena Elbert presented the virtuoso, surreal excerpts with full credibility both dramatically and musically. While winding her way through the orchestra onto centre stage she removed her shoes. About halfway through the aria conductor Iván Fischer turned to the singer and said loudly: ‘Do I too have to remove my shoes?’ Fischer fully understands and implements Ligeti’s suggestions for appropriate ad lib additions. In fact, Ligeti’s score specifies a different comment for the conductor at that point: ‘What is it now?! – freely spoken but indignantly’. Fischer’s comment about the conductor taking off his shoes was much more appropriate in this semi-staging. The orchestra, playing brilliantly, was a slightly reduced symphony orchestra, for instance with only four basses. Every note of the singer was crystal clear and mesmerising. Composer Ligeti, in the 100th anniversary of his birth, was duly honoured.

Iván Fischer conducts pianist Sir András Schiff and the BFO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The peculiar but fun tuning of the orchestra – with the oboist presenting melismatic flourishes before landing on a note to be taken by sections of the orchestra – was more than appropriate for Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.3 where the second movement (Adagio religioso) alludes to bird calls, represented by wind soloists and the solo piano. This concerto was the last composition which Bartók fully completed (apart from the last seventeen bars which were only sketched). He wrote it for his wife Ditta which may explain the lyricism which dominates. Sir Andras Schiff and his longtime friend Iván Fischer not only speak Hungarian (and many other languages) but they also speak Bartók. Schiff’s delicate agogics (rubato within the bar) suit all music making but Bartók’s composition few days before his death particularly merits this approach. It is hard to single out any aspects of a perfect performance but the timpani player (presumably Dénes Roland) delivered super-sensitive chamber music with soloist and conductor during the long decrescendo (some twelve bars) before the fugue theme in the third movement.

Schiff’s encore was most appropriately chosen and beautifully performed. He played the first of Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes. The rondeau theme is very gentle and is, of course, a Slovakian tune. Coming immediately after the concerto written for Bartók’s wife Ditta, musical and historical connections were honoured…whether by accident or design. Ditta was born and brought up in Rimaszombat, now Rimavská Sobota in southern Slovakia, then still Hungary.

My notes taken during the final scheduled number of the concert, indeed of the week-long UK tour of the orchestra, are mostly only snippet words such as perfect tempi, wonderful agogics, beautiful inner voices, magical dynamics. I am rarely overwhelmed, but Fischer’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 (Eroica) makes it difficult to write about. Fischer delivers what Beethoven clearly indicates but also what is between the notes, various phrases and various sections. Furthermore, Fischer tells a story, with beautiful transits between musical paragraphs. He makes the orchestra sing (on their instruments): the upbeat to the second theme in the Marcia funebre was a magical orchestral cantilena moment. My scribbled notes also include praise for the timpani and, in the third movement, for the horns who sounded like imaginary hunting horns but with perfect pitching and true cantilena.

The encore for this concert was announced by Fischer as a homage to all female composers. The orchestra turned into a choir and sang, with Fischer’s direction, Morgengruss (Morning Greeting) a work by Fanny Mendelssohn. They sang as musicians and played their instruments during the concert as singers … thus representing the essence of the true Kodály concept.

May Iván Fischer and his BFO continue for a long time to come.

Agnes Kory

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